EVANSTON, Ill. — Indiana is reeling, its season verging toward a Big Ten collapse.
A troublesome two-game road swing ended Sunday with few signs of progress for the ailing and aimless Hoosiers. Playing without leading scorer James Blackmon Jr., Indiana turned in another dud of a performance as this season of unmet potential hit another low.
The 68-55 loss to the Wildcats brought a season-worst scoring performance for the Hoosiers, whose old wounds were coupled with the latest injury blow in a season full of them.
“We’ve just got to keep improving, we really do,” IU coach Tom Crean said. “We can’t do anything about what we don’t have, who we don’t have. We can’t do anything about that.”
Improvement Sunday was limited to small segments, if it was present at all. Thomas Bryant was one of the few bright spots, turning in a double-double of 23 points and 12 rebounds.
Otherwise, these were the same Hoosiers (14-8, 4-5) who’ve turned in the Big Ten’s worst defensive play, and this time, those holes were matched with an offense lacking the potency of one of the nation’s top scorers.
Yet, after suffering one of the worst losses in Crean’s nine seasons at IU, the Hoosiers’ early effort suggested this game could be different.
Indiana built a 10-1 lead during the first five minutes, but Northwestern swung back with a 20-2 run that shifted control in the Wildcats’ favor. It was a span that saw the Hoosiers commit seven consecutive turnovers and go eight minutes between baskets.
It didn’t get any better from there.
“The key was we let them get a couple run-outs and get some confidence,” Crean said. “We probably needed to recognize even earlier with some of the decisions with the ball that would’ve saved us some turnovers. Really, the story of the game for us the first half is the difference of the turnovers and the points off turnovers.”
Yes, Indiana’s season-long struggle with ball security once again played a part in this team’s undoing. The Hoosiers committed 10 of their 13 turnovers during the first period, directly leading to 15 points for the Wildcats.
That was separation Indiana never truly sliced into.
“I think it was just a lack of focus,” guard Robert Johnson said. “When we try to make home run plays, it never ends out well for ourselves. It all comes down to making simple plays.”
Meanwhile, native Hoosier Bryant McIntosh held the upper hand in the many defensive matchup combinations Indiana threw at him. The Greensburg product scored 21 points and added eight assists, helping the Wildcats to their sixth consecutive win and their ninth win over Indiana in the last 15 meetings.
McIntosh’s big night against the Hoosiers came after he was held to four points in Bloomington last season.
“He has a lot of pride,” Northwestern coach Chris Collins said. “Indiana is one of the best states for basketball in the country. I love Indiana — the high schools, the grassroots, what IU’s done, you got Butler, Notre Dame. Indiana is such a basketball-rich state. Bryant loves his state. He grew up watching all those teams and you have an opportunity now in college, it’s something that’s going to mean a little bit more. … I thought his emotions got the best of him last year in Assembly Hall, and he would probably admit as much. I thought he tried to do too much and pressed a lot. I thought tonight he just played.”
For short-handed Indiana, Bryant tried to be every bit as much of a rock. On the course toward his double-double, he played strong and aggressive, even as the Wildcats tried to double down on him.
Bryant’s 23 points tied his career high, while the other four Indiana starters combined to shoot 7-for-33 from the field. That group included freshman Devonte Green, who made his first career start in place of Blackmon.
“We’ve lost a couple guys that are at the top of the list on the scouting report (in Blackmon and OG Anunoby), so it just ratchets it up for everybody else,” Crean said. “The key is that you don’t try to do too much yourself. You take what the game is giving you. There were some times on the break when we shot it too quick. We had to really understand the pace of the game in this one today, but Thomas did a great job of getting open.”
Taking advantage of IU’s cold shooting and disconnected defense, Northwestern held a 35-23 lead at halftime. IU didn’t get any closer than 10 points in the second half, while Northwestern built its lead to as many as 18 points with 7:28 remaining.
Where IU’s depth was once believed to be a strength, it is now being tested.
Approaching Wednesday’s home game with Penn State, it’s a test the Hoosiers are struggling to pass.